The Oil of Tranquility, vetiver is known for being soothing and calming, great for meditation and balancing. It also happens to be an important base note and fixative in perfumery. Deep, abundant roots dig into the soil and produce the lovely, rich, strong essential oil. Originally from India, vetiver now grows around the world, spread in part by agricultural interests including sugarcane—workers would take cuttings with them and plant the vetiver around the cane fields to stabilize the soil. Perhaps the perfume industry assisted, especially in Haiti where preferred strains were planted and nurtured. The end result is that most vetiver plants outside of India are genetically identical and sterile. More recently, these non-invasive vetiver plants have proven to be highly effective in many tropical and sub-tropical areas providing protection against erosion, treatment of wastewater, reclaiming highly eroded landscapes, and even protecting coastal zones.
It’s all about the roots. Rather than growing horizontally, vetiver roots reach deep into the soil, going down for many, many feet and anchoring both plant and soil. The roots produce the fragrant oil and are harvested and distilled in a variety of countries, most of them tropical or semi-tropical. Haiti is the go-to country for vetiver essential oil and generally sets the standard. For the most part, I agree. However, I found in my collection a couple others that are intriguing and lovely, and since vetiver is one of my very favorite essential oils, I do have more than a few.
There are a few things I have learned: while it is soul-affirming and wondrous to sniff vetiver straight out of the bottle, it is equally lovely to sit with dilute vetiver on a scent strip and follow it through to drydown. Vetiver aged just gets lovelier and lovelier, smoother and more elegantly woody. It also seems that I forget the sweetness and slight floral spiciness of vetiver and tend to dwell on the deep green, hay-in-sunshine fragrance.
First, let me introduce Haitian vetiver from a four-year-old sample and a two-year-old sample from a Haitian master distiller. Both are green and sweet, have the tiniest hint of smoke, have tones of spicy floral and elegant wood. Aging brings about out the more elegant wood in the drydown and a smoother fragrance overall. The Haitians know their vetiver and I continue to use this as my standard.
There is, however, another vetiver that I adore and have stockpiled – Bourbon vetiver. It is ambergris and musk, green and elegant, woody and floral but, unique among all the samples, has a wonderful clean rooty and watery tone that I love. As it progresses on the scent strip it is somewhat light but maintains the lovely woody and watery fragrance. I can just imagine the roots of a vetiver plant sinking into the earthen banks of a clean clear river.
There are vetivers from Madagascar, Java, El Salvador, and Indonesia also sitting on my shelves. Varying aspects of smoke, rubber, funk, and wood characterize these, possibly due in part to different methods and skill in distillation since the plants are most likely identical. A sample from El Salvador is quite lovely and balanced between floral/woody complexity and freshness with the very slightest hint of smoke. It dries down elegantly leaving a light and fresh vetiver fragrance behind.
Let’s see what else—I am not enamoured of the double distilled vetiver I have. It seems a bit flat and less complex but possess a characteristic elegant wood/spicy floral aroma as it dries down. Ruh khus or the wild-gathered vetiver from India has a strongly green and grassy smell, an aroma that many have referred to as reminiscent of artichoke. In fact, fractions of vetiver essential oil are used to enhance artichoke flavors. The oil of the ruh is green in color, unlike the amber color of other vetivers. The aroma of a fresh batch is really kind of lovely, mostly green and mossy with the artichoke overtones, but still obviously vetiver. However, I found these types of vetiver to be variable in quality and they seem to degrade over time. But it’s a lovely experience to give them a sniff.
Is it the complexity I love? The elegant wood and spicy flowers? Maybe I like a bit of funk and musk. It’s hard to say, just like love at first sight is hard to explain. It just is, and I am tranquil with that.
Do you love or hate vetiver? Is anyone indifferent to this complex fragrance?
What’s your favorite type?
Vetiver harvest images from http://haiti.ciesin.columbia.edu/haiti_files/documents/Freeman_UNEP_Vetiver_Report_2011_0.pdf